Small Wars Journal

Will China have to master third-party COIN?

In the latest issue of The Washington Quarterly, Ely Ratner, an Associate Political Scientist at RAND, asserts that one of the consequences of China's rapid rise in global influence will be increasingly complicated and difficult security challenges for the Chinese state. Ratner believes that most Western analysts who study China's future influence on global security have failed to take these challenges into account.

Ratner contends that the leadership of the Chinese Communist Party has made a thorough study of the lessons learned from the experiences of other rising powers in history. He claims that China's foreign policy is attempting to avoid the errors made by these powers. However, Ratner asserts that China's expanding commercial and political connections throughout the world, an unavoidable consequence of China's need for raw materials and export markets, will lead to clashes with states and non-state actors that will acquire grievances against China's decisions, methods, and actions. In addition, China's eagerness to transact with authoritarian regimes otherwise shunned by the West may lead to surprisingly large "blowback" directed against Beijing.

It is highly likely that China will find itself using the same tools -- covert action, unconventional warfare, foreign internal defense, proxy wars, third-party counterinsurgency, etc. -- that other past global powers have used to defend their interests in quasi-colonial situations. Ratner recommends that U.S. policymakers take this estimate of China's future security difficulties into account when formulating their own strategies, to including cooperation with China when security interests with the United States overlap.

Click here to read this interesting paper.

Nothing follows.


Much of China's engagement in the developing world, especially in Africa, is actually quite likely to generate significant and potentially violent friction. The personal behavior of many Chinese expatriates has been redefining racism in a way not seen since the peak of western colonialism, and the Chinese policy of importing labor, especially for agricultural projects, does not always go over well with the locals. If England or France was buying up farmland in Africa and importing white folks to work it, how would we expect that to work out? Why would it be any different for the Chinese?

As long as the net capital flow is inbound, things will be controllable, but when the time comes for return on investment and the capital flow reverses, I think you'll start seeing the story change. The Chinese have not discovered some magic technique for making neocolonialism palatable; we just haven't seen the stories play out yet. Bribery and establishing cushy relationships with the big men in charge are effective, for a while, but these aren't considered high political risk zones for nothing. These methods have been used before, and they haven't always worked out, to put it mildly. It will be very interesting to see how China reacts when - not if, when - trouble starts.

As for the alleged American "transformational approach", I've yet to see any evidence that it exists.

Bill C. (not verified)

Thu, 01/13/2011 - 5:38pm

China's emphasis on political stability and economic growth, re: its foreign policy approach, may turn out to be more productive and less destabilizing than the present US foreign policy approach, with its (the United States') emphasis on building a new political and economic order within various states, societies and regions.

Herein, should we consider that:

a. The Chinese approach seems to have greater consideration for and accommodation of the deeply engrained conservatism of various populations and societies.

b. Whereas, the United States' "transformational" approach would seem to attack this factor (cultural/societal conservatism) head on?

Accordingly, could we surmise that:

a. The Chinese more considerate and careful approach re: this issue (cultural/societal conservatism) may be less likely to alienate the ordinary citizens of various states and societies and, therefore, be less likely to either (1) cause conflict or (2) require the employment of corrective actions thereto.

b. Whereas, the US' more confrontational approach re: this factor (cultural/societal conservatism) may be much more likely to cause insurgencies, civil wars and terrorism and, thereby, require that the US gird itself to deal with all these difficulties.